Search the Site

Episode Transcript

Last week’s episode was called “Why Is There So Much Fraud in Academia?” We heard about the alleged fraudsters, we heard about the whistleblowers, and then a lawsuit against the whistleblowers:

Joe SIMMONS: My very first thoughts were like, “Oh my God, how is anyone going to be able to do this again?”

We heard about feelings of betrayal, from a co-author who was also a longtime friend of the accused:

Max BAZERMAN: We once even got to the point of our two families making an offer to a developer on a project to have houses connected to each other.

We also heard an admission, from inside the house, that the house is on fire:

Simine VAZIRE: If you were just a rational agent acting in the most self-interested way possible, as a researcher in academia, I think you would cheat. 

That episode was a little gossipy, for us at least. Today, we’re back to wonky. But don’t worry, it is still really interesting. Today, we look into the academic-research industry — and believe me, it is an industry. And there is misconduct everywhere. From the universities:

Ivan ORANSKY: The most likely career path for anyone who has committed misconduct is a long and fruitful career. Because most people, if they’re caught at all, they skate. 

There’s misconduct at academic journals, some of which are essentially fake:

ORANSKY: There may be something that sounds a lot less nefarious than what I just described, but that is actually what’s happening.

And we’ll hear how the rest of us contribute. Because, after all, we love these research findings:

ORANSKY: You know, “You wear red, you must be angry.” Or if it says that “this is definitely a cure for cancer.”

We’ll also hear from the reformers, who are trying to push back:

VAZIRE: It was a tense few months, but in the end I was allowed to continue doing what I was doing.

Can academic fraud be stopped? Let’s find out.

*      *      *

Last week, we heard about two alleged cases of data fraud, from two separate researchers, in one paper. The paper claimed that if you ask people to sign a form at the top, before they fill out the information, you’ll get more truthful answers than if they sign at the bottom. After many unsuccessful attempts to replicate this finding, and allegations that the data supporting it had been faked, the original paper was finally retracted. The two alleged fraudsters are Dan Ariely, of Duke; and Francesca Gino, who has been suspended by Harvard Business School. Gino subsequently sued Harvard, as well as the three other academic researchers who blew the whistle. The whistleblowers maintain a blog called Data Colada; they have written that they believe there is “fake data” in many of the papers that Francesca Gino co-authored, “perhaps dozens.” Gino and Ariely, meanwhile, both maintain their innocence; they also both declined our request for an interview. On that one paper that caused all the trouble, about signing at the top, there were three other co-authors: Lisa Shu, Nina Mazar, and Max Bazerman. None of them have been accused of any wrongdoing. So let’s pick up where we left off, with Max Bazerman, the most senior researcher on that paper; he also teaches at Harvard Business School.

BAZERMAN: When there’s somebody who engages in bad behavior, there’s always people around who could have noticed more and acted more.  

Bazerman was close with Francesca Gino; he had been her adviser, and he trusted her. So he has been spending a lot of time thinking about the mess. He recently published a book called Complicit: How We Enable the Unethical and How to Stop. And he’s working on another book about social-science fraud. This has led him to consider what makes people cheat. Let’s take the case of Diederik Stapel, a Dutch professor of social psychology who, after years of success, admitted to fabricating and manipulating data in dozens of studies.

BAZERMAN: Part of the path toward data fabrication occurred in part because he liked complex ideas, and academia didn’t like complex ideas as much as they liked the snappy sort of clickbait. And that moved him in that direction and also put him on the path toward fraudulent behavior.  

DUBNER: So here’s something that Stapel wrote later, when he wrote a book of confession, essentially, about his fraud. He wrote, “I was doing fine, but then I became impatient, overambitious, reckless. I wanted to go faster and better and higher and smarter all the time. I thought it would help if I just took this one tiny little shortcut. But then I found myself more and more often in completely the wrong lane. In the end, I wasn’t even on the road at all.” What struck me about that, and I think about that with Dan Ariely and Francesca Gino as well, which is that the people who have been accused of having committed academic fraud are really successful already. And I’m curious what that tells you about either the stakes or the incentives or maybe the psychology of how this happens — because honestly, it surprises me. 

BAZERMAN: I would say we don’t know that much about why the fraudsters do what they do. And the most interesting source you just mentioned — so, Stapel wrote a book in Dutch called Ontsporing, which means something like “derailed,” where he provides his information, and he goes on from the material you talked about to describing that he became like an alcoholic or a heroin addict — and he got used to the easy successes, and he began to believe that he wasn’t doing any harm. After all, he was just making it easier to publish information that was undoubtedly true. So this aspect of sort of being lured onto the path of unethical behavior, followed by addictive-like behavior, becomes part of the story. And Stapel goes on to talk about lots of other aspects, like the need to score, ambition, laziness, wanting power, status. So he provides this good insight. But most of the admitted fraudsters or the people who have lost their university positions based on allegations of fraud have simply disappeared and have never talked about it. One of the interesting parts is that Marc Hauser, who resigned from Harvard, and Ariely and Gino, who are alleged to have committed fraud by some parties, all three of them wrote on the topic of moral behavior, and specifically why people might engage in bad behavior. 

That’s right: a lot of the fraud and suspected fraud comes from researchers who explore fraud. In 2012, Francesca Gino and Dan Ariely collaborated on another paper, called “The Dark Side of Creativity: Original Thinkers Can Be More Dishonest.” They wrote: “We propose that a creative personality and a creative mindset promote individuals’ ability to justify their behavior, which, in turn, leads to unethical behavior.” So just how much unethical behavior is there in the world of academic research? That’s a hard question to answer precisely. But let’s start with this man.

ORANSKY: I essentially spend all of my nights and weekends thinking about scientific fraud, scientific misconduct, scientific integrity, for that matter.  

Ivan Oransky is a medical doctor and editor of a neuroscience publication called The Transmitter. He’s also a distinguished journalist-in-residence at NYU, and on the side he runs a website called Retraction Watch.

ORANSKY: We hear from whistleblowers all the time, people we call sleuths, who are actually out there finding these problems. And often that’s pre-retraction or they’ll explain to us why a retraction happened. We also do things like file public records requests. 

He began Retraction Watch in 2010 with Adam Marcus, another science journalist. Marcus had broken a story about a Massachusetts anesthesiologist named Scott Reuben. Reuben had received funding from several drug companies to conduct clinical trials, but instead he faked the data and published results without running the trials.

ORANSKY: I went to Adam and I said, “What if we create a blog about this?” It seems like there are all these stories that are hiding in plain sight that essentially we and other journalists are leaving on the table. And when we looked at the actual retraction notices, the information was somewhere between misleading and opaque. 

DUBNER: What do you mean by that?  

ORANSKY: So when a paper is retracted — and it’s probably worth defining that. A retraction is a signal to the scientific community or really to any readers of a particular peer-reviewed journal article, that you should not rely on that anymore, that there’s something about it that means you should — you know, you cannot pretend it doesn’t exist, but you shouldn’t base any other work on it. 

DUBNER: But when you called it misleading or opaque, you’re saying the explanation for the retraction is often not transparent? 

ORANSKY: Right. So when you retract the paper, you’re supposed to put a retraction notice on it. The same way when you correct an article in the newspaper, you’re supposed to put a correction notice on it. But when you actually read these retraction notices — and to be fair, this has changed a fair amount in the 13 years that we’ve been doing this — sometimes they include no information at all. Sometimes they include information that is woefully incomplete. Sometimes it’s some version of getting Al Capone on tax evasion. You know, “They faked the data, but we’re going to say they forgot to fill out this form.” Which is still a reason to retract, but isn’t the whole story.

DUBNER: So let’s say we back up, and I ask you, “How significant or widespread is the problem of — we’ll call it — academic fraud?”

ORANSKY: So we think that probably 2 percent of papers should be retracted for something that would be considered either out-and-out fraud or maybe just severe bad mistake. According to our data — which, we have the most retraction data of any database — about 0.1 percent of the world’s literature is retracted. So, 1 in 1,000 papers. We think it should be about 20 times that, about two percent. There’s a bunch of reasons, but they come down to, one, there was a survey back in 2009 which has been repeated and done differently, and come up with roughly the same number, actually even higher numbers recently, that says 2 percent of researchers, if you ask them, anonymously, they will say, “Yes, I’ve committed something that would be considered misconduct.” Of course, when you ask them how many people they know who have committed misconduct, it goes much, much higher than that. And so that’s one line of evidence, which is, admittedly indirect. The other is that when you talk to the sleuths, the people doing the real work of figuring out what’s wrong with the literature, and letting people know about it — they keep lists of papers they’ve flagged for publishers and for authors and journals, and routinely most of them are not retracted. Again, we came to two percent. Is it exactly two percent, and is that even the right number? No, we’re pretty sure that’s the lower bound. Others say it should be even higher.

Retraction Watch has a searchable database that includes more than 45,000 retractions from journals in just about any academic field you can imagine. They also post a leaderboard, a ranking of the researchers with the most papers retracted. At the top of that list is another anesthesiologist, this one a German researcher named Joachim Boldt. He came up briefly in last week’s episode too. Boldt has had nearly 200 papers retracted.

ORANSKY: Boldt, anesthesiology researcher, was studying something called Hetastarch, which was essentially a blood substitute — not exactly blood, but something that when you were on a heart-lung pump, a machine, during certain surgeries, or you’re in the I.C.U. or something like that, it would basically cut down on the amount of blood transfusions people would need. And that’s got obvious benefits. Now, he did a lot of the important work in that area, and his work was cited in all the guidelines. It turned out that he was faking the data. 

Boldt was caught in 2010, after an investigation by a German state medical association. The method he’d been promoting was later found to be “associated with a significant increased risk of mortality.” So: in this case, the fraud led to real danger. And what happened to Boldt? 

ORANSKY: He, at one point, was under criminal indictment, or at least criminal investigation. That didn’t go anywhere. The hospital, the clinic also — which, to be fair, had actually identified a lot of the problems — they came under pretty severe scrutiny. But in terms of actual sanctions, pretty minimal.

DUBNER: You’ve written that universities protect fraudsters. Can you give an example, other than Boldt, let’s say.  

ORANSKY: So, universities, they protect fraudsters in a couple of different ways. One is that they are very slow to act, they’re very slow to investigate, and they keep all of those investigations hidden. The other is that, because lawyers run universities, like they frankly run everything else, they tell people who are involved in investigations, if someone calls for a reference letter — let’s say someone leaves and they haven’t been quite found guilty but as a plea bargain sort of thing, they will leave and then they’ll stop the investigation. Then when someone calls for a reference — and we actually have the receipts on this, because we filed public-records requests for emails between different parties — we learned that they would be routinely told not to say anything about the misconduct. 

DUBNER: Let’s just take three of the most recent high-profile cases of academic fraud, or accusations of academic fraud. We’ve got Francesca Gino, who was a psychology researcher at Harvard Business School. Dan Ariely, who’s a psychologist at Duke. And then Marc Tessier-Lavigne, who was president of Stanford, a medical researcher. Three pretty different outcomes, right? Tessier-Lavigne was defenestrated from his presidency. Gino was suspended by H.B.S. And Dan Ariely, who’s had accusations lobbed at him for years now, is just kind of going on, and Duke says they’re investigating, but I haven’t seen any result of that. Can you just comment on that heterogeneity? 

ORANSKY: So — and I would just, not so much as a correction, but just to say that, yes, Marc Tessier-Lavigne was defenestrated as president. He remains, at least at the time of this discussion, a tenured professor at Stanford, which is a pretty nice position to be in.

A Stanford report found that Tessier-Lavigne didn’t commit fraud or falsify any of his data, although work in his labs, quote, “fell below customary standards of scientific rigor,” and multiple members of his labs appear to have manipulated research data.

ORANSKY: I’ve been quoted saying that the most likely career path or the most likely outcome for anyone who has committed misconduct is a long and fruitful career. And I mean that because it’s true. Because most people, if they’re caught at all, they skate. The number of cases we write about, which grows every year, but is still a tiny fraction of what’s really going on. Dan Ariely, we interviewed Dan years ago about some questions in his research. Duke is actually, I would argue, a little bit of a singular case. Duke in 2019 settled with the U.S. government for $112.5 million because they had repeatedly, alleged to, have covered up really bad, significant misconduct.   

Duke has had particular trouble with medical research. There was one physician-researcher who faked the data in his cancer research. There were allegations of federal grant money being mishandled; also, of failing to protect patients in some studies. At one point, the National Institutes of Health placed special sanctions on all Duke researchers.

ORANSKY: So, I got to be honest — and, you know, people in Durham may not like me saying this — but I think Duke has a lot of work to do to demonstrate that their investigations are complete, and that they are doing the right thing by research dollars and for patients. 

Most of the researchers we’ve been talking about are already well-established in their fields. If they feel pressure to get a certain result, it’s probably the kind of pressure that comes with further burnishing your high status. But junior researchers face a different kind of pressure. They need published papers to survive — “publish or perish” is the old saying. If they can’t consistently get their papers in a good journal, they probably won’t get tenure, and they may not even have a career. And those journals are flooded with submissions. So the competition is fierce — and it is global. This is easy to miss if you’re in the U.S., since so many of the top universities and journals are here. But academic research is very much a global industry, and it’s also huge. Even if you are a complete nerd and you can name 50 journals in your field, you know nothing. Every year, more than 4 million articles are published in somewhere between 25,000 and 50,000 journals, depending how you count. And that number is always growing. You’ve got journals called Aggressive Behavior and Frontiers in Ceramics; Neglected Tropical Diseases and Rangifer, which covers “the biology and management” of reindeer and caribou. There used to be a Journal of Mundane Behavior but that one, sadly, is defunct. But no matter how many journals there are, there is never enough space for all the papers. And this has led to some — well, let’s call it scholarly innovation. Here, again, is Ivan Oransky:

ORANSKY: People are now really fixated on what are known as paper mills. So if you think about the economics of this, it is worthwhile if you are a researcher to actually pay — in other words, it’s an investment in your own future — to pay to publish a certain paper. What I’m talking about is literally buying a paper or buying authorship on a paper. So to give you a little bit of a sense of how this might work, you’re a researcher who is about to publish a paper. So, you know, Dubner et al. have got some interesting findings that you’ve actually written up and a journal has accepted. It’s gone through peer review. And you’re like, “Great,” and that’s good for you, but you actually also want to make a little extra money on the side. So you take that paper — that essentially is not a paper yet, it’s really still a manuscript — you put it up on a brokerage site, or you put the title up on a brokerage site. You say, “I’ve got a paper where, there are four authors right now. It’s going into this journal, which is a top-tier or mid-tier or whatever it is, etc. It’s in this field. If you would like to be an author, the bidding starts now.” Or, “it’s just, it’s $500 or €500 or whatever it is.” And then Ivan Oranksy comes along and says, “I need a paper. I need to get tenure. I need to get promoted. Oh, great, let me click on this brokerage site. Let me give you $500.” And now all of a sudden, you write to the journal, “By the way, I have a new author. His name is Ivan Oranksy, he’s at New York University. He just joined late, but he’s been so invaluable to the process.”  

DUBNER: Now, what do the other coauthors have to say about this?  

ORANSKY: Often they don’t know about it, or at least they claim they don’t know about it.

DUBNER: What about fraudulent journals — do those exist, or fraudulent publication sites that look legit enough to pass muster for somebody’s department? 

ORANSKY: They do. I mean, there are a couple different versions of fraudulent — with a lowercase ‘f’ — publications. There are publications that are legit in the sense that they can point to doing all the things that you’re supposed to do as a journal. You have papers submitted, you do something that looks sort of like peer review. You assign it what’s known as a digital object identifier. You do all that publishing stuff. And they’re not out-and-out fraudulent in the sense of they don’t exist and people are just making it up, or they’re trying to use a name that isn’t really theirs, but they’re fraudulent with lowercase ‘f’ in the sense that they’re not doing most of those things. Then there are actual what we refer to — we and Anna Abalkina, who works with us on this — as hijacked journals. We have more than 200 on this list now. They were at one point legitimate journals. So it’s a real title that some university or funding agency or etc. will actually recognize. But what happened was some version of the publisher sort of forgot to renew their domain. I mean, literally something like that. Now, there are more nefarious versions of it. But it’s that sort of thing where these really bad players are inserting themselves and taking advantage of the vulnerabilities in the system, of which there are many, to really print money. Because then they can get people to pay them to publish in those journals and they even are getting indexed in the places that matter. 

DUBNER: It sounds like there are thousands of people who are willing to pay journals that are quasi-real to publish their papers.  

ORANSKY: At least thousands, yes.  

DUBNER: Who are the kind of authors who would publish in those journals? Are they American, not American? Are there particular fields or disciplines that happen to be most common?   

ORANSKY: Well, I think what it tends to correlate with is how direct or intense the publish-or-perish culture is in that particular area. And generally that varies more by country or region than anything else. If you look at, for example, the growth in China of number of papers published, what’s calculated is the impact of those papers, which relies on things like how often they’re cited. You can trace that growth very directly from government mandates. For example, if you publish in certain journals, what are known as high-impact factor, you actually got a cash bonus that was a sort of multiple of the number of the impact factor. And that can make a big difference in your life. 

Recent research by John Ioannidis, Thomas Collins, and Jeroen Baas has examined what they call “extremely productive” authors. They left out physicists, since some physics projects are so massive that one paper can have more than 5,000 authors. So, leaving aside the physicists, they found that over the course of one year, more than 1,200 researchers around the world published the equivalent of one paper every five days. The top countries for these “extremely productive” authors were China, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Italy, and Germany. When there’s so much research being published, you’d also expect that the vast majority of it is never read by more than a handful of people; there’s also the problem, as the economics blogger Noah Smith recently pointed out, that too much academic research is just useless, at least to anyone beyond the author.

But you shouldn’t expect any of this to change. Global scholarly publishing is a $28 billion market. Everyone complains about the very high price of journal subscriptions — but universities and libraries are essentially forced to pay. There is, however, another business model in the research-paper industry, and it is growing fast. It’s called open-access publishing, and here it’s most often the authors who pay to get into the journal. If you think that sounds problematic — well yes. Consider Hindawi, an Egyptian publishing company with more than 200 journals, including the Journal of Combustion, the International Journal of Ecology, and the Journal of Advanced Transportation. Most of their journals are not at all prestigious. But that doesn’t mean they’re not lucrative: a couple years ago, Hindawi was bought by John Wiley & Sons, the huge American academic publisher, for nearly $300 million.

ORANSKY: So, Hindawi’s business model was, they’re an open-access publisher, which usually means you charge authors to publish in your journal and you charge them, you know, it could be anywhere from hundreds of dollars to even thousands of dollars per paper. And they’re publishing tens of thousands and sometimes even more papers per year. So you can start to do that math. What happened at Hindawi, was that somehow paper mills realized that they were vulnerable. So they started targeting them. They’ve actually started paying some of these editors to accept papers from their paper mill. And long story short, they now have had to retract something like — we’re still figuring out the exact numbers when the dust settles — but in the thousands. 

In 2023, Hindawi retracted more than 8,000 papers. That was more retractions than there had ever been in a year from all academic publishers combined. Wiley recently announced that they will stop using the Hindawi brand name. But they’re not getting out of the pay-to-publish business.

ORANSKY: Publishers earn more from publishing more. It’s a volume play. And when you’re owned by shareholders who want growth all the time, that is the best way to grow. And these are businesses with very impressive and enviable profit margins of sometimes up to 40 percent. And these are not on small numbers. The profit itself is in the billions often. 

It’s hard to blame publishers for wanting to earn billions from an industry with such bizarre incentives. But if publishers aren’t looking out for the integrity of the research, who is?

*      *      *

Brian NOSEK: We feel like when we’re in cultures that there is no way for any of us to change the culture. It’s a culture — my God, how could we change it? But we also recognize that cultures are created by the people that comprise them. And the notion that we collectively can actually do something to shift the research culture, I think has spread. And that spreading has actually accelerated the change of the research culture for the better.

That is Brian Nosek. He’s a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, and he runs the Center for Open Science. For more than a decade, his center has been trying to get more transparency in academic research. You might think there would already be transparency in academic research — at least I did. But here’s what Nosek said in Part 1 of this series, when we were talking about how researchers tend to hoard their data rather than share it.

NOSEK: Yeah, it’s based on the academic reward system. Publication is the currency of advancement. I need publications to have a career, to advance my career, to get promoted. And so the work that I do that leads to publication — I have a very strong sense of, oh, my gosh, if others now have control of this — my ideas, data, my designs, my solutions — then I will disadvantage my career.  

I asked Nosek how he thinks this culture can be changed.

NOSEK: So for example, we have to make it easy for researchers to be more transparent with their work. If it’s really hard to share your data, then adding on that extra work is going to slow down my progress. We have to make it normative. People have to be able to see that others in their community are doing this — they’re being more transparent, they’re being more rigorous — so that we instead of us saying, “Oh, that’s great ideals, and nobody does it,” we say, “Oh, there’s somebody over there that’s doing it. Oh, maybe I could do it too.” We have to deal with the incentives. Is it actually relevant for my advancement in my career to be transparent, to be rigorous, to be reproducible? And then we have to address the policy framework. If it’s not embedded in how it is that funders decide who to fund, institutions decide who to hire, and journals to decide what to publish, then it’s not going to be internally and completely embedded in the system.

Okay, so that is a lot of change! Here’s one problem Nosek and his team are trying to address: some researchers will cherry-pick or otherwise manipulate their data, or find ways to goose their results, to make sure they come up with a finding that will capture the attention of journal editors. So Nosek’s team created a software platform called the Open Science Framework, where researchers can pre-register their project — and their hypothesis — before they start collecting data.

NOSEK: Yeah, so the idea is you register your designs and you’ve made that commitment in advance. And then as you’re carrying out the research, if things change along the way — which happens all the time — you can update that registration. You could say, “Here’s what’s changing. We didn’t anticipate that going into this community was going to be so hard, and here’s how we had to adapt.” That’s fine, you should be able to change. You just have to be transparent about those changes so that the reader can evaluate.

DUBNER: And then those data are time-stamped, I gather?

NOSEK: Exactly, yeah. You put your data in, your materials. If you did a survey, you add the surveys. If you did behavioral tasks, you can add those. So all of that stuff can be attached then to the registration so that you have a more comprehensive record of what it is you did.

DUBNER: It sounds like you’re basically raising the cost of sloppiness or fraud, yes? 

NOSEK: It makes fraud more inconvenient, and that’s actually a, a reasonable intervention. I don’t think any intervention that we could design could prevent fraud in a way that doesn’t stifle actual legitimate research. We just want to make visible all the things that legitimate researchers are doing so that someone that doesn’t want to do that extra work has a harder time. And eventually, if everything is exposed, then the person who would be motivated to do fraud might say, “Well, it’s just as easy to do the research the real way, so I guess I’ll do that.”

The idea of pre-registration isn’t new; it goes back to at least the late 19th century. But there’s a big appetite for it now. The Data Colada team came up with their own version. Here’s Uri Simonsohn, from the Esade Business School in Barcelona.

Uri SIMONSOHN: It’s a platform that we launched. It’s called AsPredicted. And it’s basically eight questions that people write, your coauthor sign on it, it’s time- stamped, people can share the PDF. And when we launched it, we thought, “Okay, when do we call this a failure?” You know, thinking ahead, when do you shut down the website? “All right, if we don’t get 100 a year, we’re going to call it failure” — and we’re getting about 140 a day now.

Brian Nosek says the Registered Report model can be especially helpful to the journals.

NOSEK: So in the standard publishing model, I do all of my research, I get my findings, I write it up in a paper, and I send it to the journal. In that model, the reward system is about the findings. I need to get those findings to be as positive, novel, and tidy as I can so that you, the reviewer, say, “Okay, okay, you can publish it.” That’s dysfunctional, and it leads to all of those practices that might lead the claims to be more exaggerated than the evidence. The Registered Report model says to the journal you are going to submit, Brian, the methodology that you’re thinking about doing and why you’re asking that question, and the background research supporting that question being important, and that methodology being an effective methodology. We’ll review that. We don’t know what the results are. You don’t know what the results are. But we’re going to review based on, do you have an important question?

DUBNER: So this is almost like before you build a house, you’re going to show us your plan and we’re the building department, we’re going to come and say, “Yeah, that looks legit, it’s not going to collapse, it’s not going to infringe on your neighbor,” and so on. Is that the idea? 

NOSEK: Exactly. And the key part is that the reward, me getting that publication, is based on you agreeing that I’m asking an important question and I’ve designed an effective method to test it. It’s no longer about the results. None of us know what the results are. 

DUBNER: And so even if the results are uninteresting, not new, etc., we’ll know they’re legitimate. But there would seem to be a conflict of incentive there, which is that, “Ooh, now do I need to publish this uninteresting, not-new result?” What do you do about that?

NOSEK: Yeah, so the commitment that the journal makes is we’re going to publish it regardless of outcome. And the authors are making that commitment too. We’re going to carry this out as we said we would, and we’ll report what happens. Now, an interesting thing happens in the change of the culture here in evaluating research. Because you said, “Well, if it’s an uninteresting finding, do we still have to publish it?” It turns out that when you have to make a decision of whether to publish or not before knowing what the results are, the orientation that the reviewers bring, that the authors bring, is, do we need to know the answer to this? Regardless of what happens, do we need to know the answer? 

DUBNER: Is the question important, in other words. 

NOSEK: Exactly! Is the question important enough that we need evidence, regardless of what the evidence is? And it dramatically shifts what ends up being published. So, in the early evidence with Registered Reports, more than half of the hypotheses that are proposed end up not being supported in the final paper. In the standard literature, comparable type of domains, more than 95 percent of the hypotheses are supported in the paper. You wonder in the standard literature, if we’re always right, why do we bother doing the research, right? Our hypotheses are always right! And of course it’s laughable because we know that’s not what’s actually happening? We know that all that failed stuff is getting left out, and we’re not seeing it. And the actual literature is an exaggeration of what the real literature is.

I think we should say a couple of things here about academia. The best academics are driven by a real scientific impulse; they may know a lot, but they’re not afraid to admit how much we still don’t know. So they are driven by an urge to investigate, and not — not necessarily at least — an urge to produce a result that will increase their own status. But!: academia is also an extraordinarily status-conscious place. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. If status is the reward that encourages a certain type of smart, disciplined person to do research for the sake of research — rather than taking their talents to an industry that might pay them much more — that is fantastic. But if the pursuit of status for status’s sake leads an academic researcher to cheat — well, yeah, that’s bad.

SIMONSOHN: I mean, the incentives are part of the problem, but I don’t think it’s that part of the problem that we have to fix.

That, again, is Uri Simonsohn, from Data Colada.

SIMONSOHN: I think the incentives — it’s like, why do people rob banks? Because the incentives are there. But it doesn’t mean we should stop rewarding cash. It’s just, we should, you know, make our safes safer. Because it’s good for cash to buy things. And it’s good for people who publish interesting findings to get recognition.

Brian Nosek says that more than 300 journals are now using the Registered Reports model.

NOSEK: I think there is broad buy-in on the need to change, and it has already hit the mainstream of many of the changes that we promote: sharing data materials, code, pre-registering research, reporting all outcomes. So we’re in the scaling phase for those activities. And what I am optimistic about is that there is this meta-science community that is interrogating whether these solutions are actually having the desired impact. And so this is the most exciting part of the movement as I’m looking to the future, is this dialogue between activism and reform. We can do these things, let’s make these changes. And meta-science and evaluation. Is this working? Did it do what you said it’s going to do and etc.? And I hope that the tightness of that loop will stay tight because that, I think, will make for a very healthy discipline that is constantly skeptical of itself and constantly looking to do better.

Is Brian Nosek too optimistic? Maybe. Three hundred journals is a great start — but that represents maybe 1 percent of all journals. For journals and authors, the existing publishing incentives are very strong.

Simine VAZIRE: So, I think journals have really complicated incentives.

That is Simine Vazire, a psychology professor at the University of Melbourne.

VAZIRE: Of course they want to publish good work to begin with, so there’s some incentive to do some quality check, and kind of cover their ass there. But once they publish something, there’s a strong incentive for them to defend it, or at least to not publicize any errors.

And here’s a reason to think that Brian Nosek is right to be optimistic about research reform. Some of his fellow reformers — including Simine Vazire — have been promoted into prestigious positions in their field. Vazire spent some time as editor-in-chief of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

VAZIRE: So, one of the things the editor-in-chief does is, when a manuscript is submitted, I would read it and decide whether it should continue through the peer review process or I could reject it there. And that’s called desk rejection. One thing I started doing at the journal that wasn’t official policy, it was just a practice I decided to adopt, was that when a manuscript was submitted, I would hide the authors’ names from myself. So, I was rejecting things without looking at who the authors were. So, the publication committee started a conversation with me — which is totally reasonable — about the overall desk-rejection rate. Am I rejecting too many things, etc. There was some conversation about whether I was desk-rejecting the wrong people. So, if I was stepping on important people’s toes. And an email was forwarded to me from a, quote-unquote, award-winning social psychologist, you know, “Simine desk rejected my paper. I found this extremely distasteful. And I won’t be submitting there again.” And when I would try to engage about the substance of my decisions, you know, the scientific basis for them, that wasn’t what the conversation was about.

DUBNER: So it was basically like, “Do you know who I am?”

VAZIRE: Yeah. Yeah. 

DUBNER: So what happened to you and that journal, then?

VAZIRE: It was a tense few months, but in the end, I was allowed to continue doing what I was doing.

Vazire recently took on the editor-in-chief job at a different journal, Psychological Science. It is one of the premiere journals in the field; it’s also the journal where Francesca Gino published two of her allegedly fraudulent papers. So I asked Vazire what changes she’s hoping to make.

VAZIRE: We’re expanding a team that used to have a different name. We’re going to call them the Statistics, Transparency, and Rigor editors, the STAR editors. And so that team will be supplementing the handling editors, the editors who actually organize the peer review, and make the decisions on submissions. Like, if a handling editor has a question about the data integrity, or about details of the methods, or things like that, the STAR editor team will provide their expertise and help fill in those gaps. We’re also, I’m not sure exactly what form this will take, but try to incentivize more accurate and calibrated claims, and less hype and exaggeration. This is something that I think is particularly challenging with short articles like Psychological Science publishes, and especially, you know, a journal that has a really high rejection rate, where the vast majority of submissions are rejected, authors are competing for those few spots, and so it feels like they have to make a really bold claim. And so it’s going to be very difficult to play this, like, back and forth, where authors are responding to their perception of what the incentives are. So we need to convey to them that actually if you go too far, make too bold of claims that aren’t warranted, you will be more likely to get rejected. But I’m not sure if authors will believe that, just because we say that. They’re still competing for a very selective number of spots.

DUBNER: So as a journal editor, how do you think about the upside risk of publishing something new and exciting against the downside risk of being wrong? 

VAZIRE: Oh, I don’t mind being wrong. I think journals should publish things that turn out to be wrong. It would be a bad thing to approach journal editing by saying we’re only going to publish true things or things that we’re 100 percent sure are true. The important thing is that the things that are more likely to be wrong are presented in a more uncertain way. And sometimes we’ll make mistakes even there. Sometimes we’ll present things with certainty that we shouldn’t have. What I would like to be involved in and what I plan to do is to encourage more post-publication critique and correction, reward the whistleblowers who identify errors that are valid and that need to be acted upon, and create more incentives for people to do that, and do that well.

DUBNER: How would you reward whistleblowers?

VAZIRE: I don’t know. Do you have any ideas?

Right now, the rewards for whistleblowers in academia may seem backwards. Remember: the Data Colada whistleblowers have been sued by Francesca Gino, one of the people they blew the whistle on. They needed a GoFundMe campaign for their legal defense. So, no, the whistleblowers aren’t collecting any bounties. Nor do they cover themselves in any kind of glory.

Leif NELSON: Stephen, I’m the person that walks into these academic conferences, and everyone is like, “Oh, here comes Debbie Downer.”

That’s Leif Nelson, another member of Data Colada. He’s a professor of business administration at U.C. Berkeley. In a recent New Yorker piece, by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, about these fraud scandals, Nelson and his Data Colada partners were described as having a, quote, “basic willingness to call bulls***.”

DUBNER: So now that you’ve become part of this group that are collectively I would think of as the primary whistleblower or police or steward — whatever word we want to use — against fraudulent research in the social sciences, what does that feel like?   I’m guessing on one level it feels like an accomplishment. On the other hand, it makes me think of a police force where there’s the Internal Affairs Bureau, where detectives are put to find the bad apples. And even though everybody’s in favor of rooting out the bad apples, everybody kind of hates the I.A.B. guys. And I’m curious what the emotional toll or cost has been to you.

NELSON: Wow. Um. 

DUBNER: Bad question? 

NELSON: No, like, it reminds me of how stressful it all is. We struggled a little bit with thinking about analogies for what we do. We’re definitely not police. Police, amongst other things, have institutional power. They have badges, whatever. We don’t have any of that. We’re not enforcers in any way. The Internal Affairs thing hurts a little bit, but I, I get it, because that’s saying, “Hey, within the behavioral-science community, we’re the people that are watching the behavioral scientists.” And you’re right, no one likes Internal Affairs. Most of our thinking is that we want to be journalists, that it’s fun to investigate. That’s true for everybody in the field, right? They’re all curious about whatever it is they’re studying. And so, we’re curious about this. And then when we find things that we think are interesting, we also want to talk about it — not just with each other, but with the outside world. But I don’t identify as much with being a police officer or even a detective — though every now and then, people will compare us to something like Sherlock Holmes, and that feels more fun. But in truth, the reason I sort of wince at the question is that the vast majority of the time, it comes with far more burden than it does pleasure.

DUBNER: Even before the lawsuit?

NELSON: Yeah, the lawsuit makes all of the psychological burden into a concrete observable thing. But the part prior to that is that every time we report on anything that’s going to be like, “Look, we think something bad happened here,” someone is going to be mad at us, and probably more people are going to be. And, and I don’t want people to be mad at me. And I think about some of the people involved, and it’s hard because I know a lot of these people and I know their friends and I know the friends of the friends. And that carries real, real stress for I think all three of us.  

DUBNER: In The New Yorker piece, there are still people who call you pretty harsh names. You’ve been compared to the Stasi, for instance.

NELSON: Yeah, that’s — that’s real bad. I’m not happy with being compared to the Stasi. The optimistic take is that there’s less of that than there used to be. When any of the three of us go and visit universities, for example, and we talk to doctoral students, and we talk to assistant professors, and we talk to associate professors, we talk to senior professors, the students basically all behave as though they don’t understand why anyone would ever be against what we’re saying. They wouldn’t understand the Stasi thing. But they also wouldn’t even understand, like, why — they almost are at the level of, “I don’t understand why we’re having you come for a talk. Doesn’t everyone already believe this?” But when I talk to people that are closer to retirement than they are to being a grad student, they’re more like, “You know, you’re making waves where you don’t need to. You’re pushing back against something that’s not there. We’ve been doing this for decades. Why fix what isn’t broken?” That sort of thing. 

DUBNER: If they were to say that to you directly, “why fix what isn’t broken,” what would you say?

NELSON: I would say, “but it is broken.”

DUBNER: And your evidence for that would be?

NELSON: Ah, the evidence for that is multifold.

Coming up: multifold we shall.

*      *      *

Can academic fraud be eliminated? Certainly not — the incentives are too strong. Also, to be reductive: cheaters are going to cheat, and I doubt there is one field of human endeavor — no matter how noble or righteous or honest it claims to be — where some cheating doesn’t happen. But can academic fraud at least be greatly reduced? Perhaps. But that would likely require some big changes, including a new type of gatekeeper. Simine Vazire, the journal editor we heard from earlier, is one kind of gatekeeper:

VAZIRE: Sometimes, for example, we’ll get a submission where the research is really solid, but the conclusion is too strong. And I’ll sometimes tell authors, “Hey, look, I’ll publish your paper if you tone down the conclusion,” or even sometimes change the conclusion from saying, “There is evidence for my hypothesis” to “There’s no evidence one way or the other, but it’s still interesting data. And authors are not always willing to do that, even if it means getting a publication in this journal. So I do think that’s a sign that — maybe it’s a sign that they genuinely believe what they’re saying, which is maybe to their credit, I don’t know if that’s good news or bad news. I think often when we’re kind of overselling something, we probably believe what we’re saying

And there’s another important gatekeeper in academic journals, one that we’ve barely talked about: the referees who assess journal submissions. Peer review is a bedrock component of what makes academic publishing so credible — at least in theory. But as we’ve been hearing about every part of this industry, the incentives for peer reviewers are also off. Here, again, is Ivan Oransky from Retraction Watch.

ORANSKY: If you add up the number of papers published every year, and then you multiply that times the two or three peer reviewers who are typically supposed to review those papers — and sometimes they go through multiple rounds — it’s easily in the tens of millions of peer reviews as a unit. And if each of those takes anywhere from four hours to eight hours of your life as an expert, which you don’t really have because you’ve got to be teaching, you got to be doing your own research, you come up with a number that cannot possibly be met by qualified people. Really, it can’t. I mean, the math just doesn’t work. And none of them are paid. You are sort of expected to do this because somebody will peer review your paper at some other point, which sort of makes sense until you really pick it apart. Now, peer reviewers — so, even the best of them, and by best I mean people who really sit and take the time and probe what’s going on in the paper and look at all the data, but you can’t always look at the data. In fact, most of the time you can’t look at the raw data, even if you had time, because the authors don’t make it available. So peer review, it’s become really peer-review light and maybe not even that at the vast majority of journals. So it’s no longer surprising that so much gets through the system that shouldn’t. 

NELSON: This is a very hot topic.

And that, again, is Leif Nelson, from U.C. Berkeley and Data Colada.

NELSON: Editors, largely, in my field are uncompensated for their job, and reviewers are almost purely uncompensated for their job. And so they’re all doing it for the love of the field. And those jobs are hard. I’m an occasional reviewer and an occasional editor. And every time I do it, it’s basically taxing. The first part of the job was reading a whole paper and deciding whether the topic was interesting. Whether it was contextualized well enough that people would understand what it was about. Whether the study as designed was good at testing the hypothesis as articulated. And only after you get past all of those levels, would you say, “Okay, and now do they have evidence in favor of that hypothesis?

By the way, we’ve mostly been talking about the production side of academic research this whole time. What about the consumer side? All of us are also looking for the most interesting and useful studies — all of us in industry, in government, in the media. Especially the media! Here’s Ivan Oransky again:

ORANSKY: We have been conditioned and in fact, because of our own attention economy, we end up covering studies over all else when it comes to science and medicine. I like to think that’s changing a little bit. I hope it is. But we cover individual studies, and we cover the studies that sound the most interesting or that have the biggest effect size and things like that. You know, “you wear red, you must be angry.” Or if it says that “this is definitely a cure for cancer.” And journalists love that stuff. They lap it up.

DUBNER: Like, signing a document at the top will make you more likely to be honest on the form. 

ORANSKY: Well, you may have heard about that one recently.

And on that note, I went back to Max Bazerman, one of the co-authors of that paper, which inspired this series. For Bazerman, the experience of getting caught up in fraud accusations was particularly bewildering because the accusations were against a collaborator and friend that he fully trusted, Francesca Gino.

BAZERMAN: So when we think about Ponzi schemes, it’s named after a guy named Ponzi who was an Italian-American who preyed on the Italian-American community. And if we think about Bernie Madoff, he preyed on lots of people, but particularly many very wealthy Jewish individuals and organizations. One of the interesting things about trust is that it creates so many wonderful opportunities. So in the academic world, the fact that I can trust my colleagues means that we can diffuse the work to the person who can handle it best. So there’s lots of enormous benefits from trust. But it’s also true that if there is somebody out there who’s going to commit a fraud of any type, those of us who are trusting that individual are perhaps in the worst position to notice that something’s wrong. And quite honestly, Stephen, you know, I’ve been working with junior colleagues who are smarter than me and know how to do a variety of tasks better than me for such a long time — I’ve always trusted them. Certainly, for junior colleagues. For the most new doctoral students, I may not have trusted their competence because they were still learning. But in terms of using the word trust in an ethical sense, I’ve never questioned the ethics of my colleagues. So this current episode has really hit me pretty, pretty heavily.

DUBNER: Can I tell you, Max, that’s what upsets me about this scandal — even though I’m not an academic, but I’ve been writing about and interacting with academics for quite a while now. And the problem is that I maybe gave them overall too much credit. I considered academia one of the last bastions of — I mean, I do sound like a fool now when I say it but — one of the last bastions of honest, transparent, empirical behavior, where you’re bound by a sort of code that only very rarely would someone think about intentionally violating that code. I’m curious if you felt that way as well, that you were sort of played or were naive in retrospect? 

BAZERMAN: Undoubtedly, I was naive. You know, not only did I trust my colleagues on the signing-first paper, but I think I’ve trusted my colleagues for decades, and hopefully with a good basis for trusting them. I do want to highlight that there are so many benefits of trust. So, the world has done a lot better because we trust science. And the fact that there’s an occasional scientist who we shouldn’t trust should not keep us from gaining the benefit that science creates. And so one of the harms created by the fraudsters is that they give credibility to the science-deniers who are so often keeping us from making progress in society.

It’s worth pointing out that scientific research findings have been refuted and overturned since the beginning of scientific research. That’s part of the process. But what’s happening at this moment — especially in some fields, like social psychology — it can be disheartening. It’s not just a replication crisis or a data crisis: it’s a believability crisis. Simine Vazire acknowledges this.

VAZIRE: There were a lot of societal phenomena that we really wanted explanations for. And then social psych offered these kind of easy explanations, or maybe not so easy, but these relatively simple explanations that people wanted to believe just to have an answer and an explanation. 

So just how bad is the believability crisis? Danny Kahneman is perhaps the biggest name in academic psychology in a couple generations — so big that he once won a Nobel Prize in economics. His work has been enormously influential in many fields and industries. But in a recent New York Times article about the Francesca Gino and Dan Ariely scandals, he said, “When I see a surprising finding, my default is not to believe it. Twelve years ago, my default was to believe anything that was surprising.” Here again is Max Bazerman, a colleague and friend of Kahneman’s:

BAZERMAN: I think that my generation fought against the open-science movement for far too long, and it’s time that we get on the bandwagon and realize that we need some pretty massive reform of how social science is done, not only to improve the quality of social science, but also to make us more credible with the world. So many of us are attracted to social science because we think we can make the world better, and we can’t make the world better if the world doesn’t believe our results anymore. So I think that we have a fundamental challenge to figure out how do we go about doing that. In terms of training, I think that for a long time, if we think about training and research methods and statistics, that was more like the medicine that you have to take as part of becoming a social scientist. And I think we need to realize that it’s a much more central and important topic if we’re going to be creating reproducible, credible social science.  We need to deal with lots of the issues that the open-science movement is telling us about, and we’ve taken too long to listen to their advice. So if we go from Data Colada talking about p-hacking in 2011, you know, there were lots of hints that it was time to start moving, and the field obviously has moved in the direction that Data Colada and Brian Nosek have moved us. And finally we have Simine Vazire as the new incoming editor of Psych Science, which is sort of a fascinating development as well. So we’re moving in the right direction. It’s taken us too long to pay attention to the wise advice that the open-science movement has outlined for us.

SIMMONS: I do think there needs to be a reckoning.

And that is Joe Simmons, the third member of the Data Colada collective; he teaches judgment and decision-making at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school.

SIMMONS: I think that people need to wake up, and realize that the foundation of at least a sizable chunk of our field is built on something that’s not true. And if a foundation of your field is not true, what does a good scientist do to break into that field? Like, imagine you have a whole literature that is largely false. And imagine that when you publish a paper, you need to acknowledge that literature. And that if you contradict that literature, your probability of publishing really goes down. What do you do? So what it does is it winds up weeding out the careful people who are doing true stuff, and it winds up rewarding the people who are cutting corners or even worse. So it basically becomes a field that reinforces — rewards — bad science, and punishes good science and good scientists. Like, this is about an incentive system.  And the incentive system is completely broken. And we need to get a new one. And the people in power who are reinforcing this incentive system, they need to not be in power anymore. You know, this is illustrating that there’s sort of a rot at the core of some of the stuff that we’re doing.  And we need to put the right people — who have the right values, who care about the details, who understand that the materials and the data, they are the evidence — we need those people to be in charge. Like, there can’t be this idea that these are one-off cases. They’re not. They are not one off-cases. So, it’s broken. We have to fix it.

That, again, was Joe Simmons. Thanks to him and everyone else who spoke with us for this series. I’d love to know what you thought of it. Our email is

*      *      *

Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Alina Kulman. Our staff also includes Eleanor Osborne, Elsa Hernandez, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Jasmin Klinger, Jeremy Johnston, Julie Kanfer, Lyric Bowditch, Morgan Levey, Neal Carruth, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Ryan Kelley, Sarah Lilley, and Zack Lapinski. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra.

Read full Transcript


  • Max Bazerman, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.
  • Leif Nelson, professor of business administration at the University of California, Berkeley Haas School of Business.
  • Brian Nosek, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and executive director at the Center for Open Science.
  • Ivan Oransky, distinguished journalist-in-residence at New York University, editor-in-chief of The Transmitter, and co-founder of Retraction Watch.
  • Joseph Simmons, professor of applied statistics and operations, information, and decisions at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Uri Simonsohn, professor of behavioral science at Esade Business School.
  • Simine Vazire, professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne and editor-in-chief of Psychological Science.



Episode Video